27.11.20

GILLIAN WELCH – Boots No 2: The Lost Songs Volumes 1-3

Earnest Gillian Welch fans like me nowadays bear a striking resemblance to that frustrated bloke at the bus stop. You wait for ages, only for the unexpected arrival of an avalanche of riches. It is now nine years since her and partner Dave Rawlings released The Harrow & The Harvest, their last album of newly recorded songs, the only respite during this lengthy drought being 2016’s Boots No 1, The Official Revival Bootleg, a 2-CD set of outtakes from the mid-nineties sessions that produced her debut set Revival and which was reviewed here on Just Backdated - http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2016/11/gillian-welch-boots-no-1-official.html. 

        October saw the download-only release of an album of cover versions called All The Good Times that, annoyingly, I can’t seem to download, especially as it contains their take on John Prine’s lovely ‘Hello In There’. Now, suddenly, we have Boots No 2: The Lost Songs Volumes 1-3, available for some time as a download with a 3-CD disc set scheduled for mid-December. It contains 48 songs, all recorded as demos in 2002 to fulfil obligations to a publisher who was presumably charged with distributing them to artists that might record them. 

        Only three of these songs are familiar to Welch/Rawlings fans, so I’ll deal with them first. Two appeared on Soul Journey (2003) which suggests they are outtakes from these sessions. ‘One Little Song’ is taken at a slightly faster tempo than the album version but is otherwise identical, while the blues standard ‘Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor’ benefits from a sweeter guitar part, courtesy of Rawlings. The third, Hank Williams’ ‘How’s About You’, appeared on Rawlings’ A Friend Of A Friend solo LP in 2009. Here Welch takes the vocal on a sparser arrangement. 

        

        Which leaves us with 45 further songs to digest, a veritable feast that might not have been laid on our table but for a tornado that ravaged East Nashville in March of this year, tearing the roof off Welch and Rawlings’ private studio where their archive was stored. The effort to salvage the archive inspired an atypical decision on their part to release this motherlode of tracks, hitherto intended only for business use. 

        The snail-like pace at which Welch and Rawlings release albums of new songs can doubtless be attributed to their endless search for perfection, the level of which surpasses the most exacting standards. It comes as no surprise, then, that their demos – if that’s what the tracks on Boots No 2 really are – do not sound like demos to me. They sound like finished recordings by an act that simply prefers to accompany itself on guitars without further adornment, unless one of them switches to banjo and/or adds a harmonica. 

        By and large the songs follow the pattern you would expect, songs of hardship, hymns to the downtrodden, a few nods to old time religion, bluesy and melancholy for the most part with a hint of anger here and there. In amongst the sadness, however, there are occasional bursts of joy, usually toe-tappers like ‘Back Turn And Swing’ that might suit the repertoire of a banjo-led quartet in check shirts and cowboy hats booked for the Saturday night hoe-down in the Lucky Horseshoe saloon. Equally joyous but on a more personal level is ‘Happy Mother’s Day’, an affecting dispatch to the birth mother that Welch, who was adopted, never knew. 

        As you would expect, some of these songs – among them ‘Hundred Miles’, ‘Beautiful Boy’ and ‘Lonesome Just Like You’ – boast gorgeous melodies, simple and seemingly effortless, on some cases so fleeting as appear merely as sketches. Variation comes with ‘Honey Baby’, a close-mike recording with muted guitar picking that sounds as if Gillian is in the room alongside you, crooning in your ear; ‘Turn It Up’, pure fifties rock’n’roll; ‘Wella Hella’, a slinky, slide-guitar 12-bar; ‘What Can I do’, a short shuffle in jazzy tempo; and ‘There’s A First Time For Everything’ which would fit neatly into a set by Tony Bennett. 

        Every now and then I can hear traces of songs that have appeared elsewhere in the Welch catalogue. There’s a suggestion of ’Caleb Meyer’ in ‘Shotgun; of ‘Scarlett Town’ in ‘Little Lui’; and ‘Red Clay Halo’ in ‘Back Turn And Swing’. The simple country blues of ‘Picasso’ echoes much of their work, enhanced here by whichever of the pair blows the harp. It's quite beautiful. 

        Forty-eight songs are a lot to digest but I’ve listened to them all at least three times now and while it may be that new delights dawn on me after repeated listening, I can state without a shadow of a doubt that Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are composers and musicians of the highest rank who produce music as lovely as anything you’ll hear right now. 


18.11.20

ICON – Music Through The Lens


Last night I learned that the most valuable rock photograph in the world was taken in North London by the late Iain Macmillan on August 8, 1969, during a ten-minute session, for which he was paid £75. It was, of course, The Beatles striding across the zebra crossing that is almost opposite Abbey Road Studios in St John’s Wood, famously chosen by Paul McCartney as the cover of the LP that was named after the studio in which the group recorded almost all of their work.

        To be precise, what we are talking about here is a limited edition set of the seven photographs that Macmillan shot that day, six of the fabs walking one way or the other over the crossing, now one of the most visited tourist destinations in London, and one of the street sign that, tantalisingly, features the blurred legs of a girl in a light blue mini dress, which was used on the reverse. 

        The shots in question were a topic for discussion among gallery curators during the fifth episode of Icon – Music Through The Lens, a six part documentary on rock photography that is being shown on the Sky Atlantic Arts channel. One gallery curator told viewers a limited edition set of the seven Abbey Road photographs, signed by Macmillan, was sold for £40,000, another said the price quickly rose to £60,000 while a third said the price was now £900,000. It was left to a fourth curator to announce that a set was now being offered for £1.25 million. “Ouch,” said the first curator. 

        I was slightly confused as to how many such sets exist but it isn’t many. Macmillan, from Carnoustie in Scotland, died in 2006 so no more genuine signed sets will ever be produced. The key to the riches is that each photograph in a set must have the same number, which precludes the inclusion of photographs that may have been numbered but sold individually – unless, of course, a rabid collector takes the time to seek out every one to complete an identically numbered set, a task of Herculean, not to mention mouth-wateringly expensive, proportions.

        I am told by my friend Dave Brolan that once upon a time Macmillan was selling 8x10" prints of his Abbey Road shots for pennies in the kiosk at St John’s Wood tube station where all manner of Beatles artefacts were available before rock merchandising became the big business it is today. Dave, who once worked for me as the photo researcher at Omnibus Press, now acts as an agent for many top rock photographers, or their estates, from around the world, and he acted as a consultant on Icons. It was his involvement that brought me into the project. 

        I have now watched all six episodes of Icon and must declare my interest. I am one of only two music writers to have been interviewed for the series – the other is former Mojo editor Phil Alexander – but as is so often the case when I am offered the opportunity to address the nation, blink and you’ll miss me. I appear briefly  eulogising, quelle surprise, The Who  in episode two, devoted to shots taken on the road or at concerts; in episode four, about photography in rock magazines, my natural habitat; and episode five, which is about how rock photography has become an art form in itself and is now very collectable, hence the references to Iain Macmillan’s Abbey Road shots. In this I am a bit of a grumpy old man, declaring: “I wish I could sell my old articles that I wrote for Melody Maker for the same kind of money but unfortunately you can get them on line for bugger all.”

        The other episodes in this excellent series deal with the culture of rock photography generally, LP cover work and how digital cameras have changed the profession but, inevitably, the topics blur into one another because each episode deals essentially with the same subject. Many of the world’s best-known rock photographers are interviewed, among them old friends of mine like Bob Gruen (with whom I worked during my stint as MM’s man in New York), Mick Rock (who, as ever, swears like a trooper), Neal Preston (who flew with me on the Starship with Led Zeppelin), Adrian Boot and Jill Furmanovsky who, very early in her career, brought an on-stage photo of Roger Daltrey into MM’s offices. When we told her we’d use it on the front page she’d have done a cartwheel if only there was room between the desks. Gruen, famous for his shots of John Lennon, gets more screen time than most and is genuinely entertaining, as is Ross Halfin, the occasionally combative HM specialist. Gered Mankowitz, famous for his photographs of The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, acts as executive producer and is also interviewed at length.

        Another who is featured prominently is Baron Wolman, Rolling Stone’s first staff photographer, who sadly died earlier this month. I got to know Baron when I published and edited his book The Rolling Stone Years, and wrote about him here: http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2015/04/baron-wollman-rolling-stone-years.html. Elsewhere on Just Backdated I’ve written about Gruen, Rock and Boot. I was disappointed that Barrie Wentzell, MM's chief photographer from the mid-sixties to mid-seventies, wasn't included, doubtless because he lives in Toronto now and was unavailable to be interviewed. Barrie was a pioneer, of course, arguably the very first independent rock photographer, but the series concentrated primarily on more contemporary photographers, many of them unknown to me.   

        Musicians, among them Nick Mason, Alice Cooper, Nicky Wire, Craig David and Julian Lennon, are also interviewed. And, of course, hundreds of pictures, perhaps even thousands, flash across the screen over the six-hour series, many of them instantly recognisable and genuinely iconic. All of which made me wish yet again that I’d carried a camera around with me during the seventies. 



5.11.20

SLADE IN AMERICA, 1973.


Eighteen years ago last week I saw Slade on stage in America for the first time, in Los Angeles at the Long Beach Arena, supporting The J. Geils Band. It was the same night I found myself in a delicate situation with Faye Dunaway, an incident I recall elsewhere on Just Backdated, but that’s another story.*
  Noddy, Jim, Dave and Don visited me in my West Hollywood apartment on Rangely Avenue, the only musicians of any stature to do so during my stay in LA, and the following day I went to their hotel – the Los Angeles Hilton no less – to chat with them. My interview included what may well have been the first ever reference to a “special Slade Christmas single”, though its title wasn’t revealed. Also, intriguingly, Dave mentions “the film of our Earls Court concert”.
        This story that I wrote for Melody Maker (3 November, 1973 issue) focuses on their status in the USA; an attempt to put their situation into perspective without erring in either direction. As we now know, they would face an uphill struggle in America but optimism was high in 1973, as it was the following year when I saw them play again, this time in St Louis.**
        

No compromise, says Noddy. No compromise at all. America will just have to go crazee, feel the noize and get their boots off just like everywhere else.
        It may be the biggest most important and most lucrative record market in the world, but that doesn’t make one iota of difference. Slade do it just the same as they do anywhere else.
        At the weekend, Slade were second on the bill to the J. Geils Band, now a major attraction in the US, at the giant Long Beach Arena in Southern Los Angeles.
        It was a big gig for Wolverhampton’s rock and roll ambassadors, a concert hall that stops just short of London’s Earls Court, full to the brim of Americans who’d turned up to see J. Geils at their best – which they were.
        Slade weren’t at their best. Sound problems bit hard into their music – the harsh treble which they use to such good effect never came over, and Noddy received a series of shocks through the microphone as the set progressed.
        It was their last show of a five-week US tour, and one they’ll probably want to forget. But despite it all they won a lot of friends in Long Beach.
        They came back for an encore which the applause justified and they managed to achieve something like the audience participation that has become a matter of course back home.
Some reports have suggested Slade were rocking across the States, picking up multitudes of disciples in much the same way as they did in Europe. Others have written them off completely with reports of bad shows, audience lethargy and a tag of being “far too English” to succeed.
        Neither are true. What happened in Long Beach has given me a reasonably clear insight as to Slade’s current standing in the USA.
        They are neither huge nor tiny: they are simply another British band working all out to succeed in this vast country, a task which they are approaching in the time-honoured fashion of playing as well and as often as they can until that magic bill-topping arena-playing stage is finally reached.
        They’re on the way up, but they’re not there yet. Whether they will or not is difficult to guess, but there’s always been a fierce will to succeed within Slade.
        All I’m certain of is that Slade will break their backs in their attempts to achieve the same kind of success here.
        The record situation may well change now that they have switched to the mighty Warner Brothers label, whose promotion campaigns for British acts are legendary.
        The Long Beach show was encouraging in many respects. There was a huge cheer when they arrived, dressed as they do in England with Noddy in red tail jacket, check trousers and vest, Dave Hill in his Egyptian ensemble, and “superyob” guitar, Jim Lea in a pale blue suit with-knee-length shorts that just reached his high boots, and Don Powell – who’s still not completely recovered from the effects of the car crash – in bold stripes from head to toe.
        They played for an hour and with the exception of the football chant section, the act was identical to their British one.
        Two days before the Long Beach concert, I talked with the band at the Beverly Hills Hilton, sat out by a pool in the annexe where they were staying.
        It seemed a trifle grandiose for the band that’s been christened working class heroes, but the surroundings hadn’t altered their blunt responses.
        They are not exaggerating the success of their American operation themselves. “What we’re finding,” said Noddy, “is that it’s happened here in the same way it did in England. The provinces are happening more for us than the big cities.”
        The shows with J. Geils – at St Louis, San Francisco and the one at Long Beach – were the only ones on which Slade didn’t top the bill. “The fans seem to know the material more now than they did before, especially in the provincial areas where we’ve had airplay.”
        I mentioned that much criticism in America centred around their repeated urging for the audience to join in, whereas US audiences often don’t need – or want – encouragement.
        “We don’t take any notice of any critics whatsoever,” replied Noddy, more than a little emphatically. “We’ve done some shows here and gone down a storm with three encores, and we’ve picked up the paper the next day to read the reviewer saying the group received no enthusiasm from the audience.”
        While in America, Slade have mixed their next album, as yet untitled, which will be out next month.
        With one exception – their version of ‘Just A Little Bit’ – it’s all new material written by the group, and it includes their first ballad and a pub sing-along number which Max Bygraves may be covering.
        There are also tentative plans for a special Slade Christmas single, with a Christmas theme.
        This week Slade left the States, stopping in England for just one day before setting off on a European tour. In December they’ll be back here again.
        The more popular they become, the harder they work – a ratio which is often reversed in the rock and roll game. They won’t be playing in the UK again until next year.
        “With Don’s accident,” said Noddy, “we had to cancel an American tour and everything has been put back three months, I don’t think we’re ignoring Britain. We’ve done two major concert tours, and the Earls Court and Empire Pool. We haven’t neglected England.”
        “After Earls Court, it’s difficult to go back to doing an odd show at the Rainbow,” chipped in Dave Hill whose attempts to get a suntan were repeatedly thwarted by the ever-increasing shadow of the tall hotel.
        “We shall probably do one big tour of England next year, and we promise it will be a big one.
        “What we’re hoping to do here is to have the film of our Earls Court concert shown on the In Concert TV show. That will really show the States what we’re like, and that’s very important to us because the ratings on that show are phenomenal.”
        “What is beginning to happen,” said Noddy, “is that the fans are beginning to emulate us a little like they do in England. We’ve seen a few top hats, and a few bras and pants have been chucked on to the stage.
        “I know people are saying that Slade haven’t cracked America and enjoy saying it, but this is only our third tour. People expect it to happen overnight because they think it happened in England overnight, but it didn’t.
        “There was three years of hard graft on the road before we had a hit record in England and this country seems a million times bigger. Things just don’t happen like that here.
        “Every city has to see us as a live band before we can hope to sell records. It’s all building slowly, and we never expected it to happen quickly. It’s happening exactly the same for us here as it did in Europe. It’s the same pattern everywhere.”
        “We like the challenge,” said Dave. “America is something we can get our teeth into. There’s only America left. The rest of it we just go back to.”
        Don Powell, it seems, is still having difficulty remembering his drum parts. He can’t remember things that happened a week ago, and is still not allowed to drink alcohol.
        “He’s only just getting back into the stage show as it was before the accident, so we really couldn’t try to introduce any new numbers until he was better,” said Noddy.
        “We shall introduce some new stuff into the act when the album is out. There’s plenty of material on it for playing on stage.”


(I found the photo on the internet, photographer unknown.)

* http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2013/12/faye-i.html
** http://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2014/08/slade-ambassador-theater-st-louis-mo.html

1.11.20

LETTER TO YOU – Bruce Springsteen


How galling it must be for Bruce Springsteen not to be on the road with the E Street Band right now, playing the songs from this new album which, unlike his last three, is crammed with the emotional ebb and rip-roaring flow he unleashes on stage. High Hopes (2014) was a collection of unreleased material he’d been sitting on; Springsteen On Broadway (2018) was a faithful record of his solo performances, much of it recitations from his Born To Run book, at a New York Theatre that year; and Western Stars (2019) was another of his style switches, this time into the smooth western pop area favoured by singers like by Glen Campbell and Charlie Rich. 
Letter To You is nothing like any of those. It’s a return to home territory, the glory days of his mid-seventies to mid-eighties style of music, with the E Street Band back in harness, delighted to be on board, churning out those major chords to songs with big words and big choruses that invite singalongs as only this man can. It was recorded at Springsteen’s home studio in New Jersey in less than a week, or so I’ve read, and that alone makes it crackle. 
As other reviewers have noted, there’s a big black train, an edge of town and a river looming before we’ve even reached the end of the first track. ‘One Minute You’re Gone’ actually opens a bit like those gentle, minimalist songs on Nebraska, a softly strummed acoustic guitar the only backdrop until a bass drum and synthesized wash fill out the sound before the song gently fades. A chiming Telecaster riff brings in the title track, wherein – perhaps predictably – ‘Letter To You’ is rhymed with ‘true’ and ‘morning sky of blue’. After a fine, twangy solo the band step back for Bruce sings the final verse over a hi-hat, emphasising the struggle that went into the letter. Opposite the lyrics in the accompanying booklet is a picture of The Castiles, Bruce’s first band, on stage at the Ferndock Surf Shop, with surfboards piled up behind them. Its significance is revealed later. 
‘Burnin’ Train’ is a downhill ride, a rocker in the same vein as ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’, all crashing chords with Max Weinberg’s snare like a metronome until, as usual, it accelerates into double time as the verse launches into the chorus. It’s a perfect stage number, as is ‘Janey Needs A Shooter’ which is slower but no less powerful. Urged in 1985 not to lose heart, Janey is now advised to hitch her wagon to a man ‘who knows her style’, and the man in question has had this powerful song, its tempo not unlike ‘Racing In The Street’, kicking around for a while. 
‘Last Man Standing’ seems to have been the inspiration for this album. It refers in large part to George Theiss who with Bruce was the sole surviving member of The Castiles until his death in 2016 left their leader as the last of the gang. Like ‘No Surrender’, it’s a song about being in a band and the friendships that endure as a result. Structurally the song would not sound out on place on 1987’s Tunnel Of Love, at least until Roy Bittan’s piano enters the fray at the end of each verse. Meanwhile, Bruce recalls the gigs they played before, ‘You pack your guitar and have one last beer, with just the ringing in your ears.’ It’s a lovely tribute to an old friend at whose bedside Bruce held a vigil until the end. 
‘The Power Of Prayer’ is less majestic, a slightly cheesy love song that references ‘This Magic Moment’ and Ben E. King, and ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’, somewhat similar, evokes memories of – you’ve guessed – playing in bands. In other hands this characteristic subject matter might seem hackneyed but somehow Bruce’s vocals and the E Street men punch out the music with sufficient conviction to erase these thoughts. After half a dozen plays I was singing along in my car to both these tracks, even the line in the latter that went ‘from the stadiums to small town bars’. Only later did I consider that it should have been the other way around but nothing much rhymes with ‘stadium’ while ‘small time bars’ and ‘a thousand guitars’ rhyme well-nigh perfectly.
It was to be expected that Springsteen would have little time for America’s current president though in the past voices have been raised about Bruce letting down his blue-collar fans by siding with the white liberal elite. Nevertheless, without naming him, ‘Rainmaker’ takes a fair aim at the man who, if the polls are to be believed, will fall from grace this coming week. As fierce as anything on the album, no one can be in any doubt about the Rainmaker’s identity. Who else says ‘white’s black and black’s white’ and ‘night’s day and day’s night’? And while we’re at it, there’s two lines in ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’ – ‘The criminal clown has stolen the throne. He steals what he can never own’ – that seems like a tilt in the same direction. 
‘If I Was A Priest’ dates back to Springsteen’s earliest efforts, and was among the songs performed for Columbia A&R chief John Hammond in his New York office during that audition on May 2, 1972. Like much of the material from this era it features religious imagery and is on the wordy side but the E Streeters take the song by the scruff of the neck and, with whistling Hammond to the fore, turn it into a beast. At 6.51 it’s the longest song on the album, and at the four-minute mark Bruce kills the band to deliver the killer lines before the band crash back in.
‘Ghosts’, another song about the joys of playing in a band, rocks along like the best tracks from The River, even tipping the hat to ‘Your old Fender Twin from Johnny’s Music Downtown’ and ‘your Les Paul’. The ghost of the title is clearly his late Castile pal, but any feeling of naff nostalgia is tempered by the sheer enjoyment, that ‘one, two, three, four’ rush of being up there playing, and maybe even ‘your sister’ is the one who called him home with his drums and guitars in ‘No Surender’.
The penultimate ‘Song For Orphans’ sees the tempo shift back to grind in a song as wordy as those early songs referred to earlier, while the closer, ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’, rolls along to a folksy, simple melody, atypical of Springsteen. To avoid confusion I’ll mention that it’s not the song first heard in 1924 that Joe Brown sang at the end of the Albert Hall George Harrison tribute concert in 2002, but it offers the same sentiments and a suggestion of hope in this time of turmoil for America.
Indeed, if Letter To You carries a message at all, it’s that hope and dreams are around the corner and, meanwhile, there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia so long as it’s wrapped up in a Spector-like wall of sound with ringing guitars, tinkling piano, that trademark glockenspiel, a wailing sax and thumping bass and drums. Most importantly, it’s OK so long as there’s a heart-felt vocalist singing emotion-packed words like he really means it. I would expect no less from Bruce Springsteen. 

28.10.20

JUST BACKDATED REACHES 1,000,000

 

“I could live a million,” sang R.E.M. on one of their earliest tracks, though few had a clue what Michael Stipe was banging on about. Well, sometime last night someone somewhere in the world became the 1,000,000th person to read a post on Just Backdated, and I’ve decided to bang on about it. Materially, having 1,000,000 hits at last won’t affect me in the slightest as Just Backdated is a hobby and not monetised in any way, but psychologically it vindicates my decision, prompted by my daughter, to launch this blog at the end of 2013 and continue with it now for almost eight years, just for the fun of it. 
    Few organisations or individuals pay me to write about music these days but, then again, I’ve always thought that writing about music wasn’t really a job in the ‘work’ sense anyway. It’s not like making or building or repairing or selling things, or even creating music in the first place. I was just lucky that 50 years ago I was able to slip into a situation where the publishers of Melody Maker paid me to listen to music and interview musicians, then set down my thoughts on paper, which was something I liked doing, so in a way it wasn't that different from being a painter or musician or professional sportsman or woman, or anyone else who’s been lucky enough to get paid for doing what they want to do. 
    I was able to enable those seven years on MM into a few other jobs that were more like work in the traditional sense, especially the 33 years as editor at Omnibus Press, but the truth of the matter is that it all really boils down to MM, as can be seen from the posts on Just Backdated. Well over half of them relate back to that period of my life and the statistics reveal that those who visit the blog prefer to read my reminiscences or reports from that era than whatever I write about newer music. 
    Frank Zappa said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and defined rock journalism as ‘people who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read.’ Of course, he was trying to be contentious so that some writer who didn’t much like him might rise to the bait and I agreed with him to a certain extent but carried on happily doing what I did anyway. As a matter of fact, Frank almost always got good press so I could understand his attitude better if it came from an act disliked by critics, like Queen or Rush or Neil Diamond.  
    It's not as if I have a million readers, of course. The blog tells me I have 16 ‘followers’ which is a bit disappointing but whoever you are thanks. What obviously happens is that people go back again and again to read stuff. I should add that the total isn’t skewed by my own visits, which aren’t registered, so when I go onto the blog to edit my posts slightly this doesn’t count as a hit. When I first danced about architecture – thanks Frank – Melody Maker was increasing its circulation to around 200,000 copies a week, a figure that never ceases to astound me in the light of the tragic demise of the UK’s weekly music press, so a million hits in eight years is tiny in the grand scheme of things. 
    Now for some other statistics. This is the 828th post on Just Backdated, so that averages out at 1,207 hits per post but as I’ve noted before that statistic is flawed because posts about The Who and, to a lesser extent, Led Zeppelin, especially those linked on their own fan sites or FB pages, usually outnumber almost other posts by a tenfold margin. But just for the record here’s my top 20:

1) The Who Live At Fillmore East CD review – 47.7k hits
2) John, Paul & Keith Moon at Santa Monica – 14k
3) Jimmy Page’s residences – 12.1k
4) Jimmy Page meeting Robert Plant – 6.59k
5) Mandy Moon book treatment – 6.07k
6) Palazzo Dario, Kit Lambert’s Venice Palace – 5.59k
7) News of Who UK tour (2014) – 5.17k
8) Launching Dear Boy – 4.15k
9) Keith Moon & The Pythons – 4.1k
10) The Who, My Hidden Gems CD – 3.73k
11) The Who in Hyde Park, 2015 – 3.59k
12) John Entwistle Tribute – 3.22k
13) Keith Moon’s residences – 3.01k
14) The Ox (John Entwistle) book review – 2.91k
15) The North of England Beer Drinking Contest – 2.85k
16) Pretend You’re In A War (Who) book review 2.83k
17) ‘Underture’, Keith’s Great Triumph – 2.82k 
18) Deep Purple in Jakarta – 2.77k
19) Pete Townshend Interview (1974) – 2.75k
20) The Who at Stafford in 1975 – 2.7k

    Quite why the number one post, my review of The Who’s live CD from their show at the Fillmore East in April 1968, has received well over three times more hits than the post at number two is inexplicable really. I know it was shared on The Who’s official site but so have many other Who related posts. Hopefully, it’s a reflection of what a fine recording it is. If it’s sold as many copies as I’ve had hits, Pete’n’Rog will be well pleased. 
    The odd one out in the list, of course, is The North of England Beer Drinking Contest, my account of an event that several friends and I attended in Hull in 1968. This has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with music and quite why it has attracted as many hits as it has is a mystery. I was delighted when a message was left for me by the winner’s grandson two years after it was originally posted (in 2016). “Lionel Tutt was my grandad!” he wrote. “My mother told me this story as a child.” (Anyone interested can read the post here: https://justbackdated.blogspot.com/2016/09/the-north-of-england-beer-drinking.html) 
    Aside from The Who and Led Zeppelin, other acts that attracted more than 2,000 hits include Abba, The Beach Boys, Jeff Beck, David Cassidy, Rory Gallagher, Jimi Hendrix, Little Feat and Slade, with David Bowie almost there. Oddly, posts about The Beatles, collectively or individually, don’t seem that popular. I guess everyone’s read enough about them elsewhere. Same with Bruce Springsteen whose new album, Letter To You, I'll be reviewing here soon. 
    As to where all my hits come from, the US tops the league with 401k followed by the UK (221k), Russia (71.6k), Canada (30k) and Germany (26.3k). Weirdly, I have had 8.27k hits from Turkmenistan, which I think might be suspect, and 191k from ‘other regions’. 
    Anyway, thanks once again to all who visit Just Backdated and I’ll try to keep it up for as long as I can. 


23.10.20

WILD THING – The Short, Spellbinding Life Of Jimi Hendrix by Philip Norman


The first book about Jimi Hendrix I read was written by my Melody Maker colleague Chris Welch and published in 1972, long before rock books became a spin-off industry to records and concerts. It was the first ever Hendrix book and something of a coup for Chris. I remember him bringing it into the office where we passed it around, admiring not just the book but Chris’ initiative in writing it and getting it published. It was a fairly slim volume, illustrated throughout, and benefitted from Chris having interviewed and seen Jimi perform many times. Most subsequent biographers – and there have been many – had no such personal connections.
The most recent is Wild Thing by Philip Norman but I don’t hold this against him for many of the best rock books have been written by authors without social or professional connections to their subject. Norman has been writing about music for most of his life and is eminently qualified to write about Hendrix or anyone else for that matter. Published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Hendrix’s death, Wild Thing this week became the eleventh Hendrix book I‘ve read, and that includes five I commissioned as editor at Omnibus Press, ‘Scuse Me While I Kiss The Sky by David Henderson, whose UK rights I bought for Omnibus from its US publishers, and Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic, a virtuoso study of Jimi’s music that goes easy on a private life that long ago became public. 
Wild Thing observes no such scruples. Indeed, Jimi’s boundless promiscuity is a running theme as mind-blowing as the music he made, a Satyricon-like odyssey of endless shagging that puts even Led Zeppelin to shame. There can be no question that women adored Jimi Hendrix – and he them. In the end, of course, he was brought down by one who showed extreme disregard for his welfare, or so the evidence indicates. 
All of which makes it a breezy read, skipping lightly but entertainingly through Hendrix's childhood and lean years until our hero reaches London in the autumn of 1966 and his life explodes. The next four years are covered meticulously to say the least, with plenty of pages given over to the mystery surrounding Jimi’s death in a downmarket private lodge in London’s Notting Hill on September 18, 1970. That conundrum will forever remain largely unresolved but this book investigates it forensically, determinedly putting to the sword conspiracy theories suggesting Jimi was murdered by persons who might have had reason to benefit from his passing.
The leading contender in the list of suspects is the nefarious Mike Jeffrey, Jimi’s co-manager whose Club A-Go-Go in Newcastle was the launch-pad for The Animals whom he managed prior to Hendrix, a joint partnership with their industrious and far more upright bass player Chas Chandler. Jeffrey’s resemblance to characters in the great Tyneside-based gangster movie Get Carter is not lost on Norman but while his stewardship of Hendrix was certainly unprincipled, his only accuser is a roadie who made the allegation when he had a book to sell. Another contender, believe it or not, is a branch of the American secret service. 
A more likely culprit, albeit a far more benign one, is the infamous Monika Danneman who shared Hendrix’s bed on the night before he died. Interviewed many times in the years between 1970 and her death by suicide in 1996, she changed her story over and over again but whatever version you care to believe there seems little doubt that it was her negligence on that fateful morning that robbed Hendrix of his life.
The hours leading up to the calamity, the death itself and its immediate and longer-term aftermath occupy three carefully researched chapters at the end of Wild Thing, and though some of the information was previously published in Tony Brown’s book The Final Days Of Jimi Hendrix*, Norman has gone a step or two further in talking to those involved, which makes this the definitive account of what must, in the end, be regarded simply as a tragic accident, albeit one waiting to happen.  
One person at the scene who wouldn’t talk about it was Eric Burdon who, reports Norman, is ‘working on his own Jimi Hendrix story’. I’ll believe that when I see it, but at least Eric is alive, unlike almost all the dramatis personae in this tale – Hendrix himself, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell from the Experience and co-managers Chandler and Jeffrey – which severely limits Norman’s research sources but at the same time enables him to write without fear of contention. 
        Fortunately, Hendrix’s ne’er-do-well younger brother Leon is still around to be interviewed as are many of the women who came within Jimi’s orbit. These include his principal London-based partner Cathy Etchingham, now a grandmother living in Australia, Jeffrey’s long-suffering PA Trixi Sullivan and model Linda Keith, girlfriend of Keith Richards in 1966, who introduced Hendrix to Chandler and remained his friend throughout his life. All have talked at length to Norman with Etchingham, the most down-to-earth witness, offering convincing evidence of Jimi’s domesticity, warmth and carefree personality. Sullivan, on the other hand, tells us far more about her boss’ shady business affairs than I’ve read elsewhere. 
        In this regard, it’s almost heartbreaking to read how unsympathetic Jeffrey was to his client’s needs. Like ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker with Elvis, he seemed utterly oblivious to Hendrix’s art, viewing him solely as a cash-cow to be kept on a treadmill of gigs that enriched him considerably. Jeffrey’s death in a plane crash in 1973 further muddied the waters with regard to what happened to all that money, another bone of contention in the aftermath of the events of September 1970. In fact, the estate, now estimated to be worth $80 million, is in the hands of Janie Hendrix, the step-daughter of Jimi’s father Al who died in 2002. Jimi didn’t see much of it when he was alive, though like many a musician who lived only to create he didn’t much care so long as he had somewhere to sleep, food on his plate and enough to spend in boutiques that sold the flamboyant clothes, often tailored for girls, that he liked to wear. 
        Few interviewees have a bad word to say about Hendrix. He liked the recreational drugs that were prevalent among the circles in which he mixed but was terrified of needles, which meant heroin wasn’t on the menu. He turned nasty only when he drank whisky and this occasionally affected his ability to play well. He had a hippie outlook on life, often speaking ambiguously in airy-fairy ways, loved science fiction and the mothers of his friends invariably recognised a waif that needed mothering. He was shy in company, eternally unsure about his singing voice and virtually ego free. 
        Wild Thing didn’t tell me a great deal I didn’t already know about the life and death of Jimi Hendrix but a few small details fascinated me. I didn’t know he liked to watch Coronation Street and could ice skate, nor that he had a fling with Bridget Bardot, and I’m kicking myself that I wasn’t at the Troutbeck Hotel in Ilkley on March 12, 1967 – less than 10 miles from Skipton where I lived at the time – when an Experience gig was brought to a premature conclusion by Police Sergeant Thomas Chapman on account of overcrowding. I’m dubious about Jimi earning ‘$14,000 a minute’ for a gig at the Garden in New York – which would surely make the cost of tickets prohibitive – and Chas Chandler certainly wasn’t ‘riding high with his new discovery Slade’ in the summer of 1970, which was 12 months before their first hit. 
        More importantly, Norman is rightly effusive about the guitar skills that brought Eric Clapton and other top-flight British players to their knees in awe, so much so that for the past 48 hours I’ve listened to nothing but Hendrix, irrefutable testimony to the book’s merits. Furthermore, Norman traces the climactic gathering storm surrounding Jimi in a way that is genuinely page-turning. OK, we know what’s going to happen and there’s much about the sequence of events in this telling that makes the tragedy almost inevitable but at the same time there are so many ‘if onlys’ that, even now, 50 years later, you can’t help but shake your head in dismay at the downright agony of it all.  
        Finally, the cover of the hardback edition that I read is simply beautiful, an understated design featuring a photograph of Jimi’s face by David Magnus that is tinted orange and green with minimal titling. What a change from book covers that scream too loud but offer too little. Wild Thing doesn’t scream at all but offers a lot. 

 
* Published by Omnibus Press in 1997, I commissioned and edited this book.

4.10.20

QUEEN AND I: A DOOMED ROMANCE

Regular visitors to Just Backdated will perhaps have noted that certain big rock acts are conspicuous by their absence. Among them is Queen, who’ve been staring at me reproachfully for the past two weeks from the front cover of the latest Mojo magazine that sits on the coffee table in our front room. It’s my old pal Mick Rock’s famous picture of their four heads in a diamond configuration, the opening sequence of the video for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. They don’t look that happy, as they probably weren’t after Mick asked for an outrageous sum of money when they tried to buy the copyright of this shot from him several years ago.                           I was never a Queen fan. Furthermore, I had a series of encounters with them or their support staff between 1974 and 1986 that did not go well, and the appearance this week on Rock’s Back Pages of an uncomplimentary Melody Maker review of them I wrote in 1975, coupled with that Mojo cover, has prompted me to set down for posterity the details of the ill-fated relationship between Queen and I.                                    Queen emerged in the UK while I was working as Melody Maker’s man in America so I wasn’t around to see them in their infancy. Indeed, my first exposure to them was in New York when they supported – yes, supported – Mott The Hoople at the Uris Theatre on Broadway, for a run of shows in May of 1974.                                                                                It was an occasion that brought out all of New York’s glammed up boys and girls, loads of fun and glitter everywhere, and Queen dressed for it – their US debut – in garments not unlike those worn by Olympic ice skaters on the rink, all shiny satin with pleats and billowing sleeves. This was how they habitually dressed at that time, very ostentatious, as was their music, which struck me as a premeditated blend of Led Zeppelin and David Bowie with a sprinkling of Yes on the vocal harmonies, efficiently delivered certainly but very calculated and somehow bereft of that magical ingredient that conveys to an audience an act’s sense of spiritual purpose, that they really believe in what they are doing. In contrast, Mott turned in their usual high-spirited if disorderly set and seemed to me to have ten times more integrity about them. 

I next saw Queen at the Avery Fisher Hall in NY on 1 March, 1975, and I am indebted to Rock’s Back Pages for republishing on line this week my MM review of that show. Here it is, word for word: “As an ardent supporter of British rock amid a race of people weaned on hamburgers and Coca Cola, it grieves me to report how disappointed I was with Queen’s important ‘prestige’ performance at the Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday evening. I'd read good things about the band and expected much – but I came away with a sour taste.                                                            “It was perhaps unfortunate that Queen were the first heavy metal act I witnessed after attending three performances by Led Zeppelin in recent weeks.                                                                                             “Queen's music, to me, was tedious, and their on-stage presence (an essential quality if you choose to run the heavy-rock-with-glitter-overtones race) was an almost laughably bizarre mish-mash of every other more successful band of their genre.                                                    “Freddie Mercury came over as a pompous, arrogant duplication of all those who have gone before; his stage movements seemed forced and stereotyped instead of smooth and flowing with the rhythms his band were creating.                                                                                             “Brian May is a competent, but far from spectacular guitar player. His long solo relied entirely on the tape loop of an echo chamber which, I suspected, had the sustain control switched up to the fullest level.                 “I had no complaint with the rhythm section and the drummer, in fact, came to the rescue with some nifty infills time and time again. His two floor tom-toms appeared to be covered with some kind of white powder, so that every time he pounded away to his right, an interesting effect was created.                                                                                      “Queen’s lighting was excellent, and their one-hour fifteen minute show concluded on the usual smoke filled note. This, in itself, was rather curious: most bands who utilise this over-used ploy use dry ice which, as it is heavier than air, sinks to the ground and rarely rises above the musicians’ knees. Queen appeared to be using steam which has the opposite effect and floats everywhere. On this occasion the clouds of steam completely blocked out the view of the group — and the first few rows of the audience.                                                                                  “Lastly, it is only fair to point out that my view of the concert appeared to be that of the minority and the majority went home satisfied.”                                                                                                    Within a week both the New York Times and Rolling Stone published similarly unflattering reviews. 

The next time I saw Queen was at the Beacon Theatre on New York’s West Side in February 1976. I was sat in the stalls and when some idiot in the circle lobbed a firecracker over the balcony that missed my head by inches and landed at my feet, I and several others had to hastily vacate our seats midway through their performance. It was one of many fireworks chucked during the show.                                                                 While I realise it wasn’t Queen’s fault that I narrowly escaped being blinded, it didn’t endear me to them or their fans. It left a nasty taste in my mouth that somehow never went away. For this reason I didn’t review that show beyond a cursory mention in my New York news column that drew attention to the behaviour of their fans.                                                   As you can probably guess, by now I had detected what I felt was an element of cynicism surrounding Queen, as if their modus operandi had been plotted in a business meeting where all the required ingredients for success were debated and thereafter skilfully blended through earnest planning and research. It was a view shared by many of my fellow critics in America, and probably in the UK too.                                                          Perhaps sensing that Melody Maker’s NY correspondent wasn’t in their camp, the next time they appeared in NY – at Madison Square Garden no less, in February 1977 – they invited a sympathetic London-based MM writer along for their ride, no doubt to ensure positive coverage. I was on the cusp of leaving MM then anyway, and wasn’t even offered tickets to the show. I couldn’t care less. 

Thereafter my encounters with Queen did not involve the group’s music or performances and, as such, it’s quite likely the boys in the band were unaware of them. In early 1986 Omnibus Press, of which I was then editor, published a book entitled Queen: A Visual Documentary by Ken Dean (a pseudonym). The book’s cover featured the same photograph that appears on this month’s Mojo and I have no doubt Mick Rock long ago banked his check.                                                                                     No sooner had our book hit the shops than Queen’s lawyers wrote me an indignant letter. They claimed it was a blatant breach of their rights and demanded it be removed from sale, all copies destroyed and all revenues forwarded to them, pronto, plus damages to be negotiated and legal costs, under pain of god knows what.                                                   It was, of course, horseshit. Within certain parameters, the law permits anyone to publish a book about anyone else so long as you do not libel them or breach their copyright. The actual book, one in a series of similar books that didn’t trouble anyone else, was a straightforward chronology of their career, just dates, events, quotes and lots of pictures, without comment, and therefore did not libel them. The text was commissioned by me and paid for by Omnibus Press, which therefore owned the copyright, and all the photographs were cleared with the various agencies or individual photographers that owned the rights to them. Any first year law student would have known Queen’s lawyers were bullshitting.                                                                                                     So I wrote back to Queen’s lawyers informing them of our position, a letter that left no doubt I knew the law better than they did. At this point someone at their law office must have been assigned to scan the book with a fine tooth comb to check whether we had inadvertently breached their copyright in some small way. A week or two went by before we received a reply, this one stating that on one page (out of 96), in the bottom left hand corner, there was a photograph in which someone was sporting a backstage pass that incorporated Queen’s copyrighted logo, so tiny in fact that it was barely visible to the naked eye. Still, legally, it breached their copyright. Gotcha, or so they thought.                         Without admitting anything – the first rule in legal disputes – I wrote back and offered them £50 for what anyone in their right minds would consider the most minor of infringements. Realising that if they pursued this miniscule breach through legal channels they would be laughed out of court, they wrote back demanding a 15% royalty, “Our normal royalty rate on merchandise,” they said. I wrote back along the lines of, “Since you have seen fit to decline our generous offer of £50, that offer is now reduced to £25.” We never heard back.

Perhaps I had asked for it by being cheeky but my final experience of Queen, that same year, was also unpleasant. I was at their Knebworth show in August which just happened to be Freddie Mercury’s last performance with the group.                                                                          I wasn't there to see Queen - heaven forbid - but because Omnibus Press had published a book on the Knebworth Festivals by Chrissie Lytton-Cobbold, the wife of the owner of the estate, and as a result we were granted permission to set up a stall on site to sell rock books, including hers of course, and also one on Big Country, one of the day’s support acts, a book that was approved by them.                                     This did not sit well with Queen’s merchandising company who objected to our stall, pointing out that they had the exclusive right to sell merchandise on the site, which meant everything bar food and drink. The upshot of a rather nasty exchange of views backstage was that we were permitted to sell only Chrissie’s book and had to remove the rest of our stock from display. They offered to sell the Big Country book, as they were already selling that group’s merchandise alongside Queen’s.                     As the day went on I couldn’t help but notice the massive business Queen’s merchandising stands were doing, raking in heaps of cash hand over fist, mostly for Queen-branded clothing. At the end of the day they returned almost all the Big Country books to us and handed over a tiny sum of money, about £30 as I recall, which represented 15% of their revenues from those they did sell. They retained 85% which was what they retained on Queen merchandise. I didn’t argue. It was me against five big blokes.                                                                                              Would it really have harmed their vast takings if we’d been allowed to sell our books? Of course not. It was greed. That nasty taste that somehow never went away just got nastier. 

In one respect we had the last word. After poor old Freddie left us in 1991 an updated edition of our Visual Documentary book went on to sell over 50,000 copies in six months. Then again maybe not. A few years ago Roger Taylor, who struck me as a reasonable sort of bloke when I happened to spend an evening drinking with him and my pal Don Powell, bought Puttenham Priory, not that far from where I now live in Surrey. Grade II listed, it is set in 48 acres and has nine bedrooms, six bathrooms and a garage for eight cars and god only knows what else. Someone told he paid £8 million for it. That’s about 22 times more than I paid for my modest gaff.                                                                                                  And I thought was I lucky. 



2.10.20

READY STEADY GO! by Andy Neill, Slight Return


In a departure from my usual habit I am posting on my blog today an e-mail I received about Andy Neill’s recent Ready Steady Go! book. The writer is our mutual friend Ed Hanel, a fellow Who archivist and collector with whom I have been friendly since we first met in 1981. At that time Ed and his family lived in north London where he and his wife Lynne worked for the US military. Now retired and living in Hawaii, Ed worked all his life as an attorney for the US Navy which just goes to show that Who fans come from all walks of life.                    
    About 25 years ago he and Lynne were stationed in San Francisco Bay, occupying a large house on Yerba Buena Island which during WW2 was used by the Navy top brass overseeing operations in the Pacific. We – myself, Mrs C & two kids – visited the Hanels there in 1996 and you can imagine how delighted I was to note that the room in which the admirals deliberated over how best to neutralise the Japanese war offensive was now a Who museum, housing Ed’s vast collection of Who memorabilia. I even told Pete T who was also delighted.
    Anyway, because Americans never got to see RSG! I found Ed’s pronouncements particularly noteworthy. Here they are: 


“Anything published by Andy Neill will be thoroughly researched, carefully organized, and extremely well written. Ready Steady Go! (RSG!) is his latest effort and the result is, as expected, brilliant. He describes the book as a “labour of love”, and probably that is the most accurate description. But that alone wouldn’t merit a five-star review. Already out in the UK, comments there wax poetic about the detail and scope of Andy’s history of a TV show that few Americans ever saw. 
“Why should the book merit high regard here in the states? Come and gone by the end of 1966, the RSG! TV show assumed a shadowy status for American teenagers. We were told that it was a show where The Who became stars. It had a glamorous emcee named Cathy McGowan. It was filled with English bands who started the British invasion in early 1964. (The two terms, British and English, meant the same thing, right?) That was about all we knew. Those of us listening to teenage music on American AM stations at the time were puzzled by British band references to Radio Luxembourg. Surely British radio stations and TV played British rock and roll all day long. Why would anyone in London have to listen to a foreign radio station?
      “Andy’s book goes a long way toward explaining the entire cultural background in the UK that took American music, tried to copy it, created a “new” exciting sound, and shoved it down deep into our American hearts and minds. All of this done in a nation still locked into the after-shock of World War II and a class system not quite ready to give up its hold on the general population. This is a book for anyone interested in sixties music and culture, and who wants a good broad overview of what was happening in London ’63-’66. 
“It is not a quick read. Physically, the size and nearly six-pound weight of the book call for a table or counter-top where the book can be left open so that the reader can tackle it at leisure. RSG! deserves a careful and thoughtful read. Treat it like a good Scottish malt whiskey – neat and in small doses. As is always the case when reading Andy Neill’s books, I am looking forward to wherever he takes us next.”

Thanks Ed. 

30.9.20

KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK! ON WOOD: A LIFE IN SOUL by Eddie Floyd with Tony Fletcher.


Eddie Floyd isn’t a household name like Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding, his private life was never as lively as Marvin Gaye or James Brown, and it’s probably due to his genial, unflappable and rather cautious nature that he’s still with us, having turned 83 in June. All of which might suggest that this autobiography – inevitably titled after his best-known song – could be a dreary affair but his extraordinary memory for songs, names and dates makes Knock! Knock! Knock! On Wood: A Life In Soul a valuable historical record of his life and times, especially the period when he was associated with Memphis-based Stax Records in the mid to late sixties.                                                                                                     Although the book is advertised as Eddie Floyd’s autobiography, it has been ghost written by my friend Tony Fletcher whose interest in sixties soul, dormant during the period he wrote books about white bands, seems to have been reignited by his 2017 biography of Wilson Pickett. Tony has now written ten books, including one novel, but this is his first shot at ghost-writing, a discipline that requires a writer not just to step into the shoes of their subject but to interpret their voice as well. 
        The task of the ghost writer is helped enormously if there’s a shared heritage, a similar cultural background, but that’s certainly not the case here. Eddie Floyd was born in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1937, and Tony was born in Beverley, in East Yorkshire, in 1964. Beyond the fact that English is their shared first language, their circumstances couldn’t be much more diverse, a factor that adds considerably to what Tony has achieved as he gets inside Eddie’s head to translate his life in the correct vernacular and thereby convey his ‘Steady Eddie’ character to the reader. 
        Tony first met Floyd in 2015 while he was researching his Pickett book. Without hesitation he agreed to be interviewed and they met at Montgomery’s smartest hotel. “Eddie, his silver hair the only sign of old age on a honed body that men half his age would cover, was dressed to the nines, sporting a stylish two-tone suit as if ready to step on stage at a moment’s notice,” writes Tony. “I came away under no illusions that I had just spent several hours with the living embodiment of the Soul Man.” Indeed, the encounter so impressed Tony that after the Pickett book was published he contacted Floyd again to suggest he write his own book with Tony’s help. This is the result. 
        That Eddie Floyd is a gracious and amiable old soul is easily detectable from its pages and while you can’t help but admire this likeable aristocrat of the soul trade, in some respects the book resembles one of those old fashioned showbusiness memoirs wherein everybody is great and any unpleasantness brushed beneath the carpet. Although he raises an eyebrow or two at the behaviour of his rival Pickett, Eddie is too nice a guy to bear any grudges. Grit is kept to a minimum. 
        Eddie is certainly dismayed by the financial woes that befell Stax after it became clear that its owners had inadvertently squandered valuable assets but he doesn’t point the finger in an angry manner, even though his own fortunes were certainly buffeted by the label’s misadventures. Most everyone he meets in his career is wonderful, talented and kind-hearted, and only rarely is a song or record criticised. And while the many musicians with whom he works are exhaustively listed and given due credit for their work, there is a distinct lack of information about his personal life, which involves more than one wife and plenty of children. We are told that Eddie remains on good terms with his female partners, but of his domestic arrangements we remain ignorant, fleeting references to his family serving to whet an appetite fulfilled only by reference late in the book to a son, Anthony, also a musician, with whom he collaborates.
        Similarly, Eddie avoids much mention of racial discrimination or politics. I came away from the book with the impression that he simply doesn’t want to rock the boat on such matters, that whatever he thinks is better left unsaid and, in any case, no good can come of it by venting his spleen about what he probably believes he is powerless to change. He’s a musician not a senator, full stop. 
        On the plus side, the detail is extraordinary. Lovers of Stax music – Motown’s little but cooler brother in my book – will revel in the inside information about what went on in the converted movie theatre at 926 E McLemore Avenue in Memphis. The process of song writing is lucidly explained, with copious examples, the point well made that although Eddie is perhaps best known as a soul singer it’s his song writing skills of which he is most proud. 
        Key episodes in Eddie’s life receive the coverage you would expect. I defy anyone not to be charmed by Eddie’s warm recollections of his first visit, in 1967, to the UK and elsewhere in Europe where the reception rivalled a royal tour. “As far as that Stax/Volt tour of Europe went, it was perfect. Just perfect,” he writes. The death not long afterwards of Otis Redding is sadly recalled, not least because it indirectly gave rise to another of Eddie’s songs, ‘Big Bird’. 
        Many collaborators and admirers were interviewed for the book, among them Bruce Springsteen, Steve Cropper, William Bell, Alan Walden, Paul Young and Bill Wyman. As you would expect, Springsteen’s recollections of inviting Eddie on stage with E Street Band in 1976 are particularly erudite and heartfelt. Eddie was obviously overjoyed at the inclusion of ‘Raise Your Hand’ on his Live 1975-85 LP set in 1985.
        Eddie Floyd was never workshy. From his days with The Falcons, his fondly-remembered first singing group, to the awards shows he invariably shows up for today, he feels a duty always to do his best, for his audience and for his own gratification. If things sometimes don’t go according to plan he simply gets back up and starts over, cheerfully too. He’s level-headed and, when necessary, as tough as some of the boxers he so admires. Most folk he meets know he doesn’t go looking for a fight but it’s wise to avoid starting one with him. It’s left largely unsaid that the publishing revenues from ‘Knock On Wood’, and to a lesser extent ‘634 5789’ and ‘Raise Your Hand’, all songs of his that have been covered by a host of singers, have kept his bank account in credit all his life. 
        And he knows he’s been fortunate. “I have no regrets,” he writes in a feelgood closing chapter that summarises a life many would envy. Touch wood, or knock on it as Americans say, it’ll continue that way and he’ll live on for plenty more years. 





20.9.20

TEA FOR THE TILLERMAN² - Cat Stevens/Yusuf

The intriguing saga of Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam has taken another twist with the release of this impeccable re-recording of Tea For The Tillerman, Stevens’ breakthrough album, long considered his peak achievement and a classic of the singer-songwriter genre. Though only marginally superior to Mona Bone Jakon, which preceded it, and Teaser & The Firecat, which followed, Tillerman includes such memorable titles as ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, more relevant than ever in the light of Extinction Rebellion; ‘Hard Headed Woman’, the first hint of Stevens’ discomfort with his calling; ‘Wild World’, which alerts the unwary to unseen perils; ‘On The Road To Find Out’, the first in a series of introspective songs that communicated Stevens’ endless search for something deeper in his life; and the peerless ‘Father And Son’, among the greatest musical reflections on the familial generation gap, and his most enduring song. 
So what’s different? Well, he’s found his hard headed woman and Mary’s dalliance with the parson is no longer a topic for discussion but these are minor modifications in the reimagined, 50th Anniversary edition of Tillerman, released last week and now credited on its spine jointly to Yusuf/Cat Stevens. Of far greater import is the improved 21st Century production, the deeper timbre of Stevens’ voice and some nifty rearrangements of its 11 songs, some more radical than others. 
The songs are sequenced in the same order as before and were re-recorded earlier this year at a studio near Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in the South of France. Paul Samwell-Smith reprised his production duties and it is pleasing to note that Yusuf was joined by acoustic guitarist Alun Davies, his long serving accompanist and musical partner. Alun’s friend Jim Cregan was brought in to add some electric guitar, various other musicians beef up the instrumentals to levels unheard on the original recording and many of those present add their voices to a choral landscape that occasionally reinforces the delicate ambience of songs hitherto sung by Stevens alone. 
Much of the charm of the original Tillerman – and Stevens’ albums from this period of his career generally – was Samwell Smith’s light touch, but to a certain extent this has been set aside in favour of a fuller production, which is no bad thing in the light of Stevens’ age – he turned 72 in July – and its natural impact on his vocal cords. That said, the enhancements come intermittently, as if those involved decided, perhaps wisely, not to overdo the innovation for fear of alienating traditionalists. Happily, the compromise at which they arrived meets all expectations. 
Above all, though, the album retains its sadness. No matter how briskly Stevens and Davies strummed their guitars, nothing could mask the melancholy in Stevens’ voice nor the despondency in lyrics that laid bare a man who was uncomfortable in his own skin. This would not be resolved until Stevens, once Steven Demetri Georgiou now simply Yusuf, discovered the Islamic faith in late 1977. Thereafter he connected only intermittently with the secular world, though in recent years he seems to have mellowed in this regard, finding a middle ground amidst the demands of his religion and the material world in which the commercial music industry subsists. 
Back in the present, on the new version of Tillerman the lengthy intro to ‘Where Do The Children Play?’, the opening song, is retained, updated with an attractive, breathy electronic boost to the backing vocal, and Yusuf’s richer voice adds gravity to a song that was prescient 50 years ago. (Who was to know that this re-recording of Stevens’ lament for the natural world would be released a few days after Sir David Attenborough’s most recent televised wildlife documentary Extinction: The Facts, a chilling reminder of how certain species and, indeed, our very planet are threatened by overdevelopment?) At the 2.50 mark – ‘You’ve cracked the sky’ – the song breaks out from its familiar mellow setting and Yusuf’s anger resonates above drums that pound, at least by his standards, and a choral backdrop that adds dramatic counterpoint before the arrangement slips back into the same gentle fade from which it began. 
Aside from the subtle change in the lyric, ‘Hard Headed Woman’ lacks the edgy abruptness of the original and the orchestral interlude is replaced by a smoother texture and a soft electric guitar, but the modification here pales into insignificance compared to ‘Wild World’ which follows. Once a slightly reggae-tuned hit for Jimmy Cliff, ‘Wild World’ is given a Latin American makeover with a Gallic touch, an accordion deep in the mix over which Yusuf croons deeply. A lovely clarinet solo rides above the swing tempo, taking the song home in a lengthy, dreamy closing outro.
Lisa is still as sad as ever, and even a Spanish guitar, beautifully played by Eric Appapoulay, cannot ease her misery. As in the original, the song’s foundation is the tinkly piano figure, and although plucked nylon strings dominate a solo hitherto reliant on bowed strings, the arrangement is not that much different from the 1970 ‘Sad Lisa’. Even more so than ‘Wild World’, ‘Miles From Nowhere’ explodes after its quiet start, rocking out with electric guitars leading the charge as Yusuf celebrates his freedom, thereafter undulating between merriment and reflection. 
Aside from an orchestral opening reminiscent of the Beatles Mystery Tour period, ‘But I Might Die Tonight’ is not that far removed from the original recording, but ‘Longer Boats’ is more full-throated, the second verse – ‘I don’t want no God on my lawn’ – replaced with lines about asteroid dwellers looking down on us, while the contentious verse about Mary and the parson is traded for a prayer for unity and peace delivered by a rapper identified in the accompanying booklet as Brother Eli. 
‘Into White’ always sounded to me like something Edward Lear might have written to entertain children. Its gentility is retained in the least transformed song on the album. In another sharp contrast, however, ‘On The Road To Find Out’ has morphed into a dirty blues, not something I ever imagined writing in relation to Yusuf. Blue notes, courtesy of Appapoulay on electric guitar, abound in Stevens’ most overt quest song, the plodding beat on slackened drums and insistent riff hinting at the sub-Sahara and nothing like the original.
Which brings us to ‘Father And Son’ in which Yusuf duets with himself, by which I mean that while the voice of the father is newly recorded, the voice of the son is taken from a historical live recording at the Troubadour Club in Los Angeles, thus neatly realising the song’s original script. Based around the familiar theme of leaving home to discover life for oneself; sympathy balancing equally between parental caution and youthful impatience. Thankfully, the arrangement is unchanged, the instrumental interlude serene though towards the end the old and young voices no longer blend into lyrical counterpoint. Nevertheless, the son’s lines retain the desperate frustration of the original, a song of unusual passion and originality. 
Finally, the slight hesitancy evident in ‘Tea For Tillerman’ itself, the minute-long coda, has vanished in favour of a more confident piano part, played and sung by Yusuf in his more sonorous intonation. 
In closing I should mention that charming stop-frame animated videos have been produced to illustrate ‘Where Do The Children Play?’ and ‘Father And Son’, and a third film accompanies the bluesy ‘On The Road To Find Out’. All can be found on catstevens.com.